There are some films that are simply destined to stay with you. Broken Flowers, released in 2005 and directed by Jim Jarmusch is one such film. Ironically, I’ve only seen Broken Flowers three times – twice when it was released on DVD and once again just recently. Saying you’ve only seen one of your favourite films less than a handful of times may seem like a bad joke, but the sheer staying power of Broken Flowers is a testament to how good it really is.
It was only two years prior to the release of Broken Flowers that its star, Bill Murray, was receiving wide acclaim for his role as a fading film star in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Much was made of that film, and rightly so. Headlines were further made when Murray lost out on his Oscar nomination for best actor, an accolade that ultimately went to Sean Penn for his role in Mystic River. Many thought his performance as Bob Harris was the pinnacle of a wonderful career, but for other observers it was his Don Johnston who would stand out at his finest moment.
Following up one of the best films of the decade, Bill Murray would continue to do exactly what he wanted and would star in films as varied as Garfield: The Movie and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou – symbolising the way in which Murray had always treated his career choices. Broken Flowers would be followed by turns in The Lost City, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties and The Darjeeling Limited. Despite the long and varied list of starring roles and cameos, it has always been Broken Flowers that has stood out.
The set-up is simple. Don Johnston is a successful businessman, now retired, who made his fortune in computers and now wiles his time away in front of the TV and is maybe more than a little jealous of his friend & neighbour Winston (a wonderful Jeffrey Wright). Winston’s family life is perhaps the success Don really craves and his list of ex-girlfriends haunts him in various ways. After his latest squeeze – a fleeting appearance by Julie Delpy – runs out on him early one morning, he receives a letter through the post. Contained in a striking pink envelope, the letter informs Don he has a son, who may be looking for him.
The simplicity of Broken Flowers is one of the main reasons why it is so effective. The story allows Bill Murray’s aging don juan to take centre stage as he sets off in search of the woman who may have written the letter, and ultimately find out if he does actually have a son. Murray’s sardonic tone and world-weary features are a perfect match for Don’s mature take on life. The former lothario may be financially well-off, but it’s the deeper issues which have clearly affected his soul. Does he have a son? What kind of father would miss out on 19 years of their child’s life? Can he reacquaint himself one or more of his old flames in the hope of A) getting answers or B) maybe reigniting the spark they once had?
Some questions are answered, some are not. Perhaps most frustrating is that we never do find out if Don has a son. A café set-finale threatens answers and teases a conclusion, but it doesn’t come. Surely though, director Jim Jarmusch would never make it so easy. The point perhaps, is it’s not the destination that counts, but the getting there. We share the road trip with Don as he listens to the carefully created playlist that Winston made for him and we marvel at the way his amateur detective friend books flights, hotels and hires cars all so Don can complete his journey. The film is arguably at its best when the two share the screen – note another café scene where Murray is genuinely laughing at his partner in crime.
Broken Flowers is often funny, but not in an obvious way. There aren’t many gags, but what it has is genuinely tender moments, a star turn from Bill Murray and the finest jazz-soul soundtrack maybe ever. It didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time, and maybe it will be a while before it truly does. For now, savour this film, delight in the fact Bill Murray had the confidence to play this part so shortly after Lost in Translation and take the time to enjoy his greatest performance to date.